By Ovidia Yu
Gajah berak besar, kancil pun man berak besar
Malay idiom: Because the elephant does a big shit, the mouse-deer wants to shit big too.
This witty Malay saying is an example of the colour you miss speaking only Queen’s English in Singapore. Our tiny mouse-deer island has been playing catch up with the colonial elephant for two hundred years now.
Some people object to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the British colonisation. In a forum letter to the Straits Times, Ng Yi Sheng and Faris Joraimi sarcastically suggested the Asian Civilisations Museum rename itself the Asian Colonisations Museum for ignoring the murder and subjugation behind European colonialism in Asia. And our honoured founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, also initiated the British invasion of Java (3,000 locals dead) and the brutal 1811 massacre of the Dutch Garrison and their families at Palembang.
Still, on the whole, Singaporeans are happy with our Raffles statue, Raffles Hotel, Raffles Place and Raffles Institution. We didn’t suffer as badly as India or Indonesia under Colonial rule because we were so small, with no natural resources to exploit. Also, the Japanese Occupation that followed was far more brutal. (Though if you look in any Singapore food or fashion or electronics outlet today, you might be forgiven for thinking the Japanese still run Singapore!)
Now, 200 years later, we are a post-colonial meritocracy and democracy. There is still a huge social, economic divide that we accept as the status quo, only now it’s us Singaporeans playing the racial superiors who are doing the bullying. Examples are the horrific stories of domestic helper abuse – workers being starved of food and sleep, and made to kneel so they can be beaten. Migrant workers are being crammed into over-crowded quarters, left stranded without pay, not being given even one day of medical leave for a fractured foot.
Whenever such a case emerges in the news, the online mob explodes in anger, expanding all their energy and not getting into deeper issues. And no one blinks at rules that forbid foreign domestic helpers to use condo pools or eat in club restaurants – even when there as a guest.
“They can’t be trusted”, Singaporeans warn. “The smart ones are the worst”, people cry. “No matter how long they work for you, you must watch them”, homeowners say. “Always check their bags before they leave”. The list of bigoted, small-minded and racist remarks – commonplace across Singapore – continue.
Was it this bad under Colonial rule? The British have gone, yes, but we’ve taken over. We Singaporeans are the bullies, complaining about the laziness and stupidity of the people we are exploiting, just like the British did to us.
Singapore is in a fairly good place today. Instead of clinging to the trauma of being exploited as a child by papa who sent us to play piano for King George III, we should instead be grateful that we’ve learned to write symphonies. And we should let memories of how we were treated open our eyes to the harm we are doing to others. Because we survived.
My Crown Colony mysteries are a reminder that there is very little difference between us and the people caught up in that moment of history. We’ve changed places, changed clothes, and in some cases we’ve changed colour, too. Human beings have always learned best through stories. And stories are fun, even if you don’t learn anything. But maybe, through the filter of fiction (and without having to murder or be murdered) we may grow a little.
One thing that hasn’t changed since the Colonial days is that Singapore is a very small island run as a very big business. Singapore Airlines is doing well but the Singapore Girl isn’t getting married and having the two or more children the Singapore government wants her to have.
But please don’t let me scare you off. We’re not bad people and we’ve got good food. Come visit as Singapore tries to figure out where we’re headed in the next 200 years. Or pick up one of my books and see where we’ve come from.
Exclusive Interview with Ovidia Yu
We speak to Ovidia Yu, one of Singapore’s most popular authors, about her views on the nation’s bicentennial celebrations and colonial legacy, and about how she explores Sinagpore’s colonial past in her novels.
Q. How would you describe Singapore’s relationship to its colonial past?
A. I know some people wonder why we’re not fuller of anti-Colonial rage, especially compared to India and Indonesia. But most Singaporeans are practical and pragmatic and more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday. Colonialism was wrong in many ways, perhaps is wrong in essence. But it is something that happened. It’s like a brutal childhood that we survived. To say every Colonial administrator was racist and inherently evil would be like saying every local was stupid. And some who came out East as ‘Colonial Masters’ were men and women who reached beyond the system to build friendships and establish families that consider themselves Singaporean now.
The founding of modern Singapore, with the signing of the treaty with Stamford Raffles, has often been presented as a gracious handing over. But remember, Raffles came to Singapore after taking over from the Dutch in Java in a bloodbath involving betrayal and a lot of violence. Everyone in the region knew the British East India Company that Raffles represented was backed by the might of the British military. And Britain was a military superpower. There was really no choice.
Still, the British built schools and hospitals and built a naval base, and I think Singapore survived better than most other colonized nations since we had no resources worth exploiting on a large scale.
Those who rant against British Colonialism today tend to be younger people who didn’t live through the horrors of the Japanese Occupation. This was a time when my parents and their parents looked back on the British rule as the ‘good old days’, when local children smuggled jungle bananas and breadfruit to British POWs starving behind barbed wire. It was believed that as long as they were alive, England would not abandon them, and they would not abandon Singapore.
The Japanese claimed they came to free Singapore from Western domination but they killed locals en masse, as well as doctors and patients, raping and bayoneting nurses (look up the Alexandra Hospital massacre if you want the whole gory story of how they started with the doctors that carried out the white flag of surrender). Compared to being beaten to death for not bowing low enough, not being allowed into certain jobs or clubs under British rule didn’t seem so bad.
If anything, the British surrendering Singapore to the Japanese after swearing to defend us to the last was the blister that destroyed any good impressions from the colonial years.
Q. What do you think have been the long-term consequences of the British colonization of Singapore that are still being felt today?
A. Today Singapore has surpassed Britain in per capita income and growth and I think we owe Britain for that.
Look at us geographically—we are a tiny dot of an island surrounded by the huge land masses of East Malaysia, West Malaysia and Indonesia. Without Britain picking us to be your ‘Gibraltar of the East’, it’s possible we would have been absorbed into one of these nations, with Bahasa Melayu as our official language and Sunni Islam as our state religion. Which might be all fine and good; we’d be living with fewer laws and fines and cheaper cars and houses.
But it would be a very different path from the one we’re on now—having English as our official language and upholding the rights of all citizens ‘regardless of race, language or religion’. It’s a long-term consequence we take for granted, but which I’m grateful for.
Even if individual British colonial administrators didn’t always live up to British ideals of fair play and democracy, mutual respect and individual liberty, at least those ideals existed and were shared. For instance, Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister and the visionary behind modern Singapore, was a Cambridge man who married his (Girton College) wife in Stratford-Upon-Avon, in romantic secrecy. I would even suggest everything he did for, to and with Singapore can be seen as part of the long term consequences of British colonialization.
Q. How can modern Singapore address the issues of being a former British colony?
A. The ‘issue’ isn’t just post colonialization but how to hold on to identity and allegiance in a changing world!
Mass reform proclamations (which Singapore is so good at issuing) don’t work because it’s an attitude shift in individuals that’s needed. And books are a big part of that. When you see how much in common you have with people who seem different, it’s harder to judge or fear or hate others en masse.
We need to constantly adjust our default settings, the behaviour and values hardwired into us which were valid at the time. If you are alive now, that means you did whatever was necessary for your survival. But possibly it’s no longer necessary to hate or hate all ‘others’, or even to see them as ‘other’.
Many here may have unconsciously inherited and internalised the belief that ‘white’ people always know better. Others go to the opposite extreme and believe that anything that comes from the West must be a colonial relic and therefore bad for us.
But what matters is how we interact as individuals with other human beings and our environment. That’s why I really love books that allow us to see others from inside out and ourselves from outside in. Those are the kind of books I love reading and would love to write. But there has to be a story, or people won’t go on reading. I suspect we were programmed this way from our cave man days onwards, listening to stories set at the edge of the world where the storyteller claims he saw a bison fall off.
Q. What is your assessment of Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations?
A. Singaporeans love criticising almost as much as we love eating, so of course there has been controversy. But 1819 and Stamford Raffles claiming us for Britain is what put us on the Western trade map.
Indian influence was strong in the region then, and India was also taken over by the British. Chinese influence was strong, and the British crippled China with opium and the Treaty of Nanking. Singapore didn’t stand a chance on its own.
My personal objection is to celebrating Sir Stamford Raffles as our founder because though Raffles was the big boss, he really spent more time in Java. The man on the ground in Singapore was Major General William Farquhar. Farquhar was a practical, pragmatic administrator—very Singaporean—and from local accounts at the time, he was a lot closer to the people. I’ve tried to redress this in my books. For example, what you may know as the Raffles Hotel in real life is the ‘Farquhar Hotel’ in my books.
Q. How do your novels, especially the Crown Colony series, address the issues surrounding the British rule of Singapore?
A. Wanting to figure all that out is part of the reason why I’m writing these books!
There seem to be as many different versions as points of view. I’m trying to put them into characters to understand them, and to understand what it might have felt like living under British rule.
I realise that from the start, the British Colonial Office ran Singapore as a business centre with a prime location rather than setting up a government focused on the interests of the population. Our biggest advantage is that unlike India and Indonesia, we had no natural resources to exploit or cultural artefacts to steal so we didn’t come off as badly. We also didn’t inherit problems over territory or religion, something we’ve tried to maintain as our ‘business’ grows.
Singapore survived and is in a good place now. Making complaints about the past feels like complaining your self-appointed foster father exploited you as a kid (though he did try to feed, shelter and educate you).
Yes, we should acknowledge colonial rule was exploitative. But if we survived that and we survived the years of worse abuse from our Japanese step mother and we’re on good terms with her now and enjoy her technology and fashion and marshmallow dogs… surely we must acknowledge the British did some good here too.
The fact that my books are written in English, a language I love and that has shaped my mind, I owe to our Colonial legacy. Anyway, all literature that connects reflects that power balance, not just writing that’s written in the former colonies. Like you could say England was full of Darcy’s pride with Singapore now showing Elizabeth’s préjudice.
Q. Your Crown Colony novels are set in 1930s colonial-era Singapore. Why did you choose this backdrop specifically, and what is so fascinating to you about this period?
A. I actually started writing about my grandmother, who was very proud of being the first female not just in her family but in her province to get a university degree. She would have been a little older than Su Lin, but she loved trees and books and at one time thought of becoming a writer. But instead she got married and had children and became a teacher. But though this started with my grandmother, in age Su Lin is somewhere between my mum and her mother and took on a life of her own.
They both put their families first—and saw teaching in schools that their children attended as the family-friendly choice. But I also wanted to look at the single career women of the time and what options were like for them.
My protagonist, Su Lin, has little chance of marriage (in the early books at least). She has an adventurous, hungry spirit in a crippled body in a second-class race in her own homeland and is unlikely to marry because of her limp and her bad luck stigma. She doesn’t want to be a professional ‘unmarried aunt’ or schoolteacher, or alternatives like working in a factory or as a secretary. But she likes stories and finding out things so journalism—investigation and analysis then telling the story—appeals enormously to her.
Also, this inter-war period feels so poignant in retrospect. After the ‘Great War’ everyone said, ‘never again’. Then after the Second World War, everyone condemned the systematic mass murders carried out in the East and West in the name of racial and religious cleansing and swore never again.But now, more and more, it feels like we are headed towards another big showdown. I find that terrifying. Part of me wants to remind people of what happened, and to try to show things from an inside perspective.
It’s also a personal issue for me. My late mother was horribly racist but couldn’t see it. She worshipped the Queen of England and sang English hymns, while refusing to have anything to do with my late father’s Malay-speaking family and Indian relations in case she was mistaken as ‘Straits Born’. She tried to be British by rejecting locals and local cultural traditions. In a way I created Su Lin as what I would have liked my mother to be.
Q. Would you like to cover any other eras of Singapore’s history in future books, and why?
A. Oh yes! I’m currently working on a book, The Mimosa Tree Mystery, set in Singapore during the years of the Japanese Occupation. Again, I wanted to record memories of the time before they are all gone, but it’s a murder mystery, closer to Foyle’s War than Vera Brittain.
And I’m writing about present-day Singapore in my Aunty Lee books. But it’s kind of an idealised Singapore, where I can suggest possible solutions to issues that I find confounding in real life. And which I use to try to understand people whose actions make me mad in real life. Well, I either explain them or kill them off. That’s the advantage of writing murder mysteries.
Q. Singapore has transformed from a third-world to first-world country in the space of a few generations. Can you describe your experiences of witnessing this transformation first-hand?
A. I can remember brushing my teeth squatting by the drain. And the first time the street lamps came on along the road leading into the estate we lived in then. But I also remember catching bugs in the grass and how exciting the monsoon season was because there would be floods and sometimes school would be cancelled.
There were other kinds of changes too. My grandparents were fairly well off, so my mother wasn’t used to doing housework. When we got back to Singapore, there was a live-in amah who ran things; a nanny for me; two servant girls to do the house work (they went home on weekends); a washerwoman who came every day except Sunday; a gardener and a gardener’s boy. If they entertained, people came in to prepare and serve the food.
But by the time I left home there was only a Filipina domestic helper. And now I do my own vacuuming and mopping—it’s good exercise and definitely a change for the better!
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, got rid of the slums and moved us from Third World to First World in one generation. He learned from the British as well as the Japanese that harsh measures effect change faster than reason. That worked well. But now that our people are no longer dying of typhoid and cholera every monsoon season, maybe we no longer need such harsh discipline?
But I’m well aware I’m biased here. Lee Kuan Yew was my late father’s hero. Literally, “My hero is dead,” he said on hearing of LKY’s death. And ill as he was by then, my father insisted on going to queue to pay his final respects because he owed it to him.
Q. There has been a special relationship between the UK and Singapore for two centuries. As the country now looks towards the future, do you think this connection will endure?
A. It was a special relationship. In the old, old days, Churchill called us “the Gibraltar of the East” but then left us virtually undefended, the British surrendering after a week to an inferior number of soldiers they considered of inferior race.
After the war we maintained English as our official language. That was a special link, because viewed from Singapore, Britain seemed the pinnacle of education—the land of Oxford and Cambridge and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The apex of culture and entertainment too—Shakespeare, lonely clouds wandering amongst daffodils, the Beatles, James Bond, Blackadder, My Beautiful Laundrette, Downton Abbey, Dr Who, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes—all presided over by benign, noble Brits personified by Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen… or Rowan Atkinson.
I’m guessing this was less than accurate. But it was a prettier picture than Theresa May and Brexit present today!
No matter what changes, we will always share a history and a bond. The exploitation of the past can’t be undone, but might evolve if Britain re-engages the Commonwealth. After all, the Commonwealth’s objectives as stated in the Singapore of 1971, and reinforced by the Harare Declaration of 1991, to fight against poverty, ignorance and disease, support free trade, equality and opposition to racism are more relevant and necessary today than ever.
It would mean a lot to Commonwealth nations today to have Britain stand up against the colonialism and unthinking racism of the past, and work towards improving conditions of the vulnerable in former colonies—which would also reduce unrest and fears of mass exodus.
Q. You are one of Singapore’s best-known authors. What do you think has been the secret of your success?
A. I’ve been very, very lucky. And I was born in the right place, at the right time.